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Don’t Drive That Car!

A couple of recent news items and podcasts have got me thinking about the future of cars and driving. The first was a report on the probable introduction in the near future of laws against using a mobile phone while driving. The second was a discussion of automation technologies where vehicles can drive themselves.

I think making laws against using mobile phones in cars is a good idea. Don’t get me wrong: I intend to continue using mine but if less others do it then the roads have got to be safer. Of course the problem will be the same one we always have with laws of this sort: the people who follow the law will probably be responsible and sensible and less likely to cause accidents anyway. The people who cause most of the accidents (whether they are using a mobile or not) won’t take a lot of notice.

I said I’d ignore the law but I want to emphasise that I do use my cell phone fairly responsibly. I have a hands-free system and I can operate the phone from the headset. It is an iPhone and there is no need to stop concentrating on driving while answering a call. I know that just talking with someone on a phone also increases the risk but so do lots of other things so I’m prepared to take that risk.

But the whole problem will go away eventually because in the future people will be astounded to hear that we were actually allowed to control our own cars. Systems are being developed which will allow the car to drive itself from one point to another completely automatically. High precision GPS, on-board sensors, and a central control system will make this possible.

I’m not sure how far in the future this system might be. We already have automated aircraft – the pilot is almost surplus to requirements today – but our roads are a far more complex and busy environment than the sky, although in some areas the sky is also quite crowded.

Another factor might be the reduction in the amount of actual travel. Many jobs could already be done from home and its just old-fashioned ideas which stop that happening. As the roads get busier and the cost of transport goes up working over high speed internet links should become far more common.

I know that a large part of my job could be done remotely. Remote access systems like SSH and screen control systems like VNC allow me to control any computer from anywhere. Programming, database design, and web design can be done anywhere too. And as more people get used to on-line shopping the need for physical retail premises will reduce.

I’m not advocating a society portrayed in some science fiction stories where the person lives their whole life “virtually” by never moving from one spot but interacting with others and the world through ultra-realistic virtual reality systems but I think there is a place where that sort of thing could work and that would solve many of our current problems.

We look back at the risky lives of people in the past and laugh. I’m sure the same will happen in 50 years time when people look back and say “they were crazy back in the 20th and 21st century – they actually controlled their own cars!”

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